Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Night Rainbow – A hauntingly beautiful read

Book Title: The Night Rainbow
Author: Claire King

What do you do if you lose your papa in an accident and your maman, pregnant with a baby, moves to a far away place in her head where you cannot reach her? In a place where she cannot abide loud noises, cooks when she feels up to it but mostly keeps to her room?

Well, you take care of yourself the best you can even if you’re just five. You make sure you don’t bother maman, you play in the meadow, splash around in the stream and eat fruits or make yourself a sandwich when you’re hungry. Most of all, you try to find ways to make maman happy because you want her back with all the wanting in your little heart.

That’s the story

..of five and half year old Peony, better known as Pea, her little sister Margot and their mum Joanna. As Joanna loses herself to depression the two little girls are left to their own devices. They spend their days talking and playing. During their wanderings they meet a man, Claude and Merlin his dog, and strike up a friendship. Claude keeps his distance even though he is affectionate and caring but the girls come to look upon him as the father figure they miss so much.

Set in the summer of a small French village, that is the all the plot you’ll find in The Night Rainbow. It isn’t much, so if you’re looking for a story you will be disappointed. Nothing really happens. The narrative has the dull sameness of the  routine of Pea’s days. As you progress through the pages you wait for something to happen. You wait for the market days when Pea gets to go out with her mum as much as she does. You look forward to her interactions with Calude or even the small chance encounters with other village folk.

But here’s the thing, the book draws you in. You step into it and you feel what Pea is feeling. You find yourself grinning when she manages to draw a smile from Joanna, you cringe in the dark with her as she battles her imagined monsters and you want to hold her and hug away her yearning for a real family.

This one isn’t meant to be read for its racy narrative, it is one of those soul-stirring stories whose beauty lies in its slowness. There’s a bit of a revelation towards the end which makes the story even more poignant. And I wonder how I missed it through the book.

Perhaps the book affected me as it did because it spoke in a child’s voice.

Pea was a delightful heroine. Sometimes she seems a trifle old for her age but I forgave her considering she’s had to run her life on her own. I had to try hard to not get judgemental about Joanna. Mothers cannot afford the luxury of withdrawing into themselves when they have a five-year-olds to look out for. My heart broke for Pea as she tries, tries ever so hard to make Joanna happy. Her deep yearning to bring a smile to her maman’s face, for the hugs, the kisses and the cuddles, for the warmth of the old times and her childish attempts towards that are heartbreaking. When she fights the night demons, her loneliness is palpable and yet so strong is her concern for Joanna that she is refuses to wake her up.

There were times where I wanted to shake Joanna out of her depression. If that were even possible. But when I would put away the  judgemental mum in me I’d feel so so sorry for her. To have lost a baby first then your husband, to be far away from your own home, with hostile in-laws, heavily pregnant and all alone – how terrible must that be. She tries. She cooks somedays and smiles too but the sadness weighs too heavily on her leaving her lethargic and uncaring.

Though Pea rarely cries or even complains, her longing is tangible and that is what makes this a sad, haunting, beautiful read. When Shelly said ‘the most beautiful songs were born out of the saddest things’ he could have been talking about The Night Rainbow.

Last thought: It’s definitely worth a read but it’s likely to pull you down into a well of sadness so pick it up with care.

This is my Review of the Month for the review collection on LovelyAudiobooks.info

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The Legend of Genghis Khan – A #Review

Book Title: The Legend of Genghis Khan
Author: Sutapa Basu

Before I picked up Genghis Khan by Sutapa Basu all I knew about him was that he was an ancestor of Babur and a very cruel one at that. There have been several great conquerers who have set out to own the world. I find them intriguing. What drives them? Power? Money? What keeps them going in the face of extreme adversity? How do they motivate an entire army of people to believe in their cause, to follow them and their dream, to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks?

For those reasons I found The Legend of Genghis Khan fascinating – the man, the story, the story telling – all of it.

The Story

Born as Temujin to the leader of a Mongol tribe, Genghis Khan is prophesied to be a great man. A shaman interprets the signs at the time of his birth that signal the makings of a conqueror. That’s the thought that little Temujin grows up with. He accepts it and owns it till it becomes a belief firmly rooted in his mind and later, the biggest truth of his life. It is this thought – that he is destined to craft a vast Mongolian empire – that remains his guiding light during the darkest times of despair and through the toughest decisions of his life. He pursues it with awe-inspiring single mindedness.

The Review

No fictional tale could compete with Genghis Khan’s life. He goes from being a clan leader’s pampered son to a fatherless boy, to a leader himself, then a helpless captive in a hostile land until he finally realises his destiny. Khan’s life was a roller coaster.

The book begins with his men plundering a palace, destroying, burning, killing and taking prisoner. Among the prisoners is princess Enkhtuya. When she is brought before the Khan, something about her makes him pause.

Then on the story flits between the present and past with glimpses of the Khan’s childhood, even as he and his men plan and launch attack after attack conquering vast territories.

The introduction of Princess Enkhtuya was a brilliant thought. Her character added a whole new dimension to Genghis Khan. Basu manages to give us a glimpse of his gentler side, without taking away from the image of a ruthless conqueror. For some mysterious reason he has a soft spot for her, yet he remains focussed on his life’s mission and none of her entreaties can persuade him to show mercy to his enemies.

The story flows simply and well as we follow the Khan through dry desert areas with raging sandstorms to freezing ice lands. The writing is evocative and the characters consistent.

It is a storyteller’s delight as well as a challenge. The research must have been mind-boggling. What I loved most is the objectivity with which Basu approaches this story. It is easy, almost natural, to admire/love your protagonist and to go on to justify him/his actions. Sutapa Basu manages to not to do that. She tells the tale like a seasoned chronicler remaining true to the tale and nothing else. She writes without attempting to glorify Genghis Khan – without apologies, without explanations – a little like the man himself. She lets his faults and his achievements speak for themselves. 

The Legend of Genghis Khan skilfully treads the line between history and fiction. Read this one for some great story telling.

Last thought: If you’re not a non-fiction reader but are a bit of a history buff this book is for you.

Linking up with the Write Tribe Reading Challenge – This is my review for ‘A book by an author new to me’.

Salt to the Sea – A #Review

Book Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Septeys

The more I read about the Second World War, the more I realise how little I know. So here’s another WWII story, another perspective, another group of people displaced from their homes and homeland in search of peace.

The Story

The War is almost at an end. Germany is on the back foot, though refusing to acknowledge it even as the Russian Army advances, raping and killing along its way. Through this terrifying chaos, four refugees – two Germans, a Pole and a Lithuanian – with dark tortured pasts, try to escape the war, making their way to the coast of the Baltic Sea in an attempt to board a ship to safety.

Even after they board the Wilhelm Gustloff their struggles don’t end. For one, they still have secrets to hide. Also the German ship is a target for Russian torpedoes even if all it carries are wounded soldiers, women and children.

Four protagonists, Four POVs, Many stories

The story is told through four points of view, with each of the characters getting two or three pages at a time. It took me a few pages to get used to it but then narrative caught pace and didn’t flag till the very end.

The success of a book like this one depends on how much and how soon the reader gets invested in the characters and their lives. I found myself gripped by not just the four main ones but by many others too. I wanted to know their stories, their families, their background and the past they were hiding. The secrets were revealed slowly over the pages leaving me horrified and amazed by turns. I wanted them desperately to find the safety they craved, I mourned them as much as their friends in the novel.

The journey

A large part of the book talks about journey of the four protagonists to the ship. It is a passage plagued with fear. The biggest threat is from the Russians who are technically the liberators, but are just as vicious as the Nazis, claiming all they find as victors’ spoils. There are the Nazis themselves who wouldn’t hesitate to persecute a Polish girl or a deserter as also the old and disabled. Above all there’s hunger and cold. Septeys descriptions brought home how cruel, how persistent and how insidious the two can be, cutting through layers of meagre clothing, freezing and starving victims to death.

On the ship

Images of surging desperate crowds anxious to board the ship with their belongings, often reduced to a single bag, were heart wrenching. There were moms throwing their children onto the ship hoping they’d get to safety or ‘buying’ children hoping they’d be their passport for the voyage – those are scenes that’ll remain with me for a long time. Desperation makes one act in ways one never thinks of. It brings out the best in people and also the worst.

I must mention that though Salt to the Sea talks about struggle and fear and loss, it isn’t a sad book. It has moments of warmth and genuine goodness that make it worth a read.

Last Thought: This one has to be read.

To buy the book at Amazon click on the picture below.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – A #Review

Book Title: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Author: Stephen Chbosky

I’d heard a lot about The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It was also the winner of the award for the Best Young Adult book for the year 2000. So it was with a great sense of anticipation that I picked it up, specially because I knew nothing of the story at all.

A coming of age book..

…of 15 year old Charlie. He is about to start High School but isn’t at all ready to jump into the crazy whirlpool that High School is. The recent suicide of his friend has left him traumatised. The passing away of his beloved aunt haunts him too. Painfully shy and a complete introvert Charlie enters school which begins on not a very happy note. However, soon enough, he befriends siblings Patrick and Sam and a whole new world opens up to him – a world of friends, dating and music as also of drugs and sex. The book talks about how Charlie manoeuvres himself through that first year at High School.

The book deals with a very wide range of issues ..

– suicide, PTSD, bullying, drugs, homosexuality, young sex, incest, abuse, rape – the entire gamut that plagues young people. It was published in the nineties, a time when these subjects weren’t as freely discussed as they now are. Which is perhaps why scores of teens identified with it. It isn’t tough to imagine that every youngster at that age is a little bit unsure and lost and struggles with one of more of these issues. That makes Charlie identifiable and his story relatable. It is definitely a brave book for its times. Some of its quotes went viral too. Remember this one?

We choose the love we think we deserve.

It is an epistolary novel ..

…where Charlie writes to an imaginary friend. That’s where the trouble started for me. Charlie’s voice just didn’t sound like that of a fifteen year old. He writes like a middle schooler, which would have been acceptable if he hadn’t also been an advanced English student, apparently much ahead of his peers and the favourite of his English teacher.

Also, his world view too seems that of an 8-year-old which was confusing. His knowledge about girls, boys, love, sex and drugs is so very rudimentary. Assuming he had a over-protected life at home, (which is tough, given that he has an older brother and sister), surely he has been around other children, peers and that should have given him some idea.

I wondered for bit if he was autistic going by the way he ‘reports’ events rather than writes about them, plus there’s his exceptional talent for English. Or perhaps he had Asperger’s going by his social ineptness. However, the fact remained unexplained. And that shall bug me forever.

While the teen issues never really lose relevance, there have been a number of coming-of-age books since this one (like Simon vs the Homosapein Agenda) that are much better, much more focussed in what they have to say.

Last thought: Don’t kill for it but do read it if it’s at your library.

Linking up with the Write Tribe Reading Challenge – This is my review for ‘A book that was a gift’. It came to me from my dear Secret Santa at the BAR Nibha Gupta.

The Forest of Enchantments – A #Review

Mythology tells timeless tales. Which is why we never tire of listening to these stories from our childhood. Or perhaps the charm lies in the voice of the storyteller who brings something new, something unexpected to the tale; a new perspective maybe, or a poetic narration – something that makes the same old story fresh and exciting.

That’s why Chitra Banerjee’s The Forest of Enchantments was a book I was really looking forward to. It made me break my no-book-buying resolve within a few days of making it. Oh well!

The story 

…. of Sita is not new – found as an infant by the king of Mithila she is married off to Ram, the charismatic scion of the Raghu clan. When Ram is banished to fourteen years of exile she decides to accompany him, is abducted by the powerful Asura King Ravan only to be rescued by Ram. Barely has she settled down in the palace when she is banished, once again to the forest, this time by Ram himself for imagined infidelity. Finally, broken and hurt she finds refuge within mother earth.

Divakaruni’s Sita

…is my Sita too. She was closest to the one I’d always imagined and loved.

I loved that Sita chooses to tell her own story. Valmiki’s version wouldn’t do for her. How could he, a mere man, be equipped to understand a woman, divine guidance notwithstanding? So this here is the Sitayan.

Divakaruni crafts Sita’s character with care – her traits and her strengths complement her origin. Daughter of the earth, she understands all things that come from the earth. She has a green thumb, she can heal through herbs, she talks to the trees, she feels their pain, she craves the forest. Divakaruni’s pen brings to life Sita’s love in beautifully flowing prose, making one fall in love with the world as she sees it – free and unrestrained.

Sita is taught to use her body like a weapon, to centre her whole being and withdraw into herself when situations around her became unbearable.

Her natural gifts coupled with learned skills make her, to me, the perfect woman. One with silent strength and quiet courage, in Divakaruni’s words, ‘easy to mistake for meekness’; Sita has the courage of endurance.

On Love

Ramayan, as also Sitayan is definitely Sita and Ram’s love story. However, beyond that, The Forest of Enchantments is a treatise on love. Every action, good or bad, stems from love and its myriad shades – joy, ecstasy, expectation, pain, suffering, even death. Divakaruni gets elegantly lyrical as she enumerates how each action, each emotion finally finds its root in love. And every single quote is worth being read over and over again.

My absolute favourite is the one on Kaikeyi

It’s not enough to merely love someone…. we must want what they want, not what we want for them.

And this one from when she isn’t able to tell Ram how desperately she wants children during the banishment.

That’s how love stops us when it might be healthier to speak out, to not let frustration and rage build up until it explodes.

I know I’m overdoing this but just one more..

How entangled love is with expectation, that poison vine!

The other characters

..are beautifully etched too. Ram, the duty bound Raghuvanshi, Kaikeyi – strong and stubborn, Urmila – happy, effervescent as also Ravan, Shurpanakha, Mandodari, Sarama (Vibhishan’s wife), Ahalya (my favourite) and Shabari – they were all just right.

I would have liked to see a softer side to Lakshman. He seems forever angry and suspicious. Ram is his whole world, to the exclusion of everyone else. I sorely missed the warmth of his relationship with Sita.

But I’ll let that go, there is only so much one can do while cramming an epic into a few hundred pages.

The ending

…needs special mention because it is absolutely magnificent. Sita’s last few lines completely satisfied the feminist in me, without being angry or aggressive or loud. You need to read it to get what I’m saying.

The few bits that missed the mark

I loved Sita, I’ve made that pretty clear. That said, there were parts of her character that didn’t come together. One, she seemed overly empathetic, unnaturally so – even with Ravan and Shurpanakha. She is constantly thinking from multiple points of view even in the most dire circumstance. I get that she’s a divine, evolved soul but in her human form, it didn’t ring true.

Yet at places what she feels and says doesn’t tie in with her divinity. When she thinks of dying in the Ashok Vatika one of her thoughts is,
‘I wouldn’t be able to tell him how I’d suffered and how all through that suffering had remained true to him.’ Only too human!

I’m being too demanding, I know. The balance between the divine and mortal is difficult not to say subjective.

There were also bits of writing that didn’t quite come through. The abduction scene, for instance, didn’t turn out to be as dramatically horrifying as I thought it should have been.
Says Sita ‘My nails raised welts on his dark smooth skin…’. No one would note her captor’s ‘smooth’ skin while being abducted.
Also, when Sita sees the Pushpak Viman, she says, and I quote..
‘I was so amazed, I couldn’t help staring in open-mouthed wonder. For a moment, I even forgot to struggle.
‘You might want to close your lips’, the rakshasa (Ravan) said kindly (?). ‘A bug might wander in.’
The humour detracted from the horror of the situation.

And yet, despite the few hiccups I’ll say this is the best retelling of the Ramayan I’ve read. The one that reminded me of my grandma’s stories only in a more colourful, more fresh, ever more engrossing form.

Last Thought: Buy it.

Click on the image to buy the book.

The Bodyguard – A #Review

Book Title: The Bodyguard
Author: Ruchi Singh

I was eager to pick this one up as I had read Jugnu, by the same author and loved it. The premise was deliciously different and the cover was enticing. What’s not to like with a brave strong heroine and a rich handsome hero in a sort of role-reversal? That’s what caught my interest. I thought this would make for a wonderful romantic read. And I wasn’t disappointed. That there was a mystery element thrown in made it even better.

The Story

Major Esha Sinha, an ex-army officer is hired as an undercover agent for Vikramaditya Seth Jr. Things take a serious turn when repeated attempts are made on his life. Esha struggles to ignore their mutual attraction in order to focus on the killer who is out to get Vikram.

What I loved

I started out thinking it was a romantic novel, however few pages down the line I realised it was more of a suspense thriller and, to me, that was a plus.

The characters come to life early on. I loved Major Esha – strong, silent, somewhat brooding with a bit of a mysterious past – the classic Mills and Boon hero. Flirtatious, egoistic, workaholic Vikram was a delight too. There were a host of other supporting characters, all etched out with care.

The writing was fast paced and there never was a dull moment. The story moved ahead with every page as new bits of information were revealed.

I loved that we got glimpses of the assassin’s life, a little peek into his head, just enough to spike ones interest and keep one guessing.

What could have been better

On the flip side, the suspense could have been tighter. There were a number of suspects, which was good, but they were rejected without really convincing reasons. Also, although I loved Major Esha’s character, she slips in her line of duty – her charge gets hit (twice) in her presence by the same person and she fails to protect him. That didn’t quite fit in with her character as the super-efficient bodyguard that I wanted her to be.

The end seemed rather hurried with Esha figuring things out pretty fast. Also, there were a few lose ends that needed to be tied up but were left dangling.

Oh and there were editing errors, more than a few. Avoiding those could have added quality to the book.

Last thought: A decent travel companion.

I was given a copy of the book by the author through Write Tribe in exchange for an honest review.

The Restaurant of Love Regained #BookReview

Book Title: The Restaurant of Love Regained
Author: Ito Ogava
Translated by: David Karashima

I bought this one off Amazon despite my self-imposed book ban, in a paperback edition despite struggling with shelf space. That’s how much I wanted to like this book. The premise is absolutely enchanting.

The story

Rinko comes home one day from her job at a restaurant to find that her boyfriend has walked out on her. As he goes he empties out their shared home including all her possessions as well as her life savings, which they were putting together to start a place of their own.

In shock, Rinko loses her voice. She decides to go home to her mother. The two have never got along but she has little choice now. She discovers  her mom has replaced her with a pig, Hermes, whom she loves more than she ever loved Rinko. With a loan from her mom and help from a childhood friend, Rinko starts a small restaurant. She calls it The Snail and serves only one exclusive customer a day. Her restaurant becomes successful and her food is believed to have magical qualities. Thereafter certain events occur and secrets come tumbling out that impact not just her restaurant, but also her relationship with her mom.

What I thought

Fiction centred on food is absolute comfort read for me. The Restaurant of Love Regained promised exactly that. Though the book begins on a melancholic note, it brightens up soon enough. It was delightful to follow Rinko as she set up her restaurant. I loved how things came together. The quaint door, the yellow orange walls, the handmade chandelier, the large old wood table, the hand sewn table covers, the thick rug and even a futon for someone who wants a post-meal nap. It was a dream.

Although built on a budget it seemed warm, spacious, elegant and cosy all at the same time.

Then there’s Rinko’s love for food. It comes shining through on every page. She has an endearing sense of pride in her cooking. When Hermes refuses to eat bread baked by her she is bothered and she experiments with ingredients to come up with something he likes.

It was disheartening to see something I’d made being left uneaten. The fact that the disgruntled customer was a pig didn’t help either.

I loved her dedication and her commitment to all things fresh and local. She treks through mountains and climbs trees to get to the best fruits and vegetables. She picks wild mushrooms and creates magic out of them. She plants herbs and watches them grow. She marinates and mixes, roasts and fries, stirs and sautés to cook up amazing creations.

What I didn’t like

I don’t want to put in spoilers but something happens towards the last bit of the book that completely spoilt it for me. Let me just say that if you do not like graphic descriptions of meat, stay away from this one. It is gory and insensitive and absolutely turned my stomach.

Perhaps it was a cultural thing or perhaps it was just me. I have been a vegetarian for over a decade, however, everyone around me is not and I’m okay with dinner-table conversations that discuss meat but this was something way beyond that.

I skipped through almost the last fifty pages which would otherwise have been poignant and sweet, filled with reconciliations and tender moments.

Last Thought: I leave you to make up your own mind about this one.